Archive for April, 2016

African-Americans on currency – too politically correct?

April 25, 2016

UnknownAndrew Jackson will be replaced, on the front of the $20 bill, with Harriet Tubman, a black woman. Inevitably some (like Trump) cry, “Political correctness!” Others, much worse.

Meantime, proposed designs were also recently made public for a future special-issue gold coin. imagesPast U.S. coins often portrayed “Lady Liberty.” Now she would have African-American features.

In the numismatic publications, reactions from the coin collector community were again sadly predictable. People always like what’s old and familiar and hate what’s new and different. The proposed design is seen as traducing a hallowed tradition. And Coin World’s editor called out the racism behind many of the comments.  Some seem to think the Goddess of Liberty is caucasian.

Morgan Dollar

Morgan Dollar

A lot of commenters called the image ugly. I wonder where they get their aesthetic nous. This design seems far finer than most modern U.S. mint productions. The gal depicted “I wouldn’t kick out of bed.” She’s certainly lovelier than many of our past Lady Liberties – like the bloated battleaxe on the Morgan dollar, so beloved by collectors. (Maybe they had different notions of feminine beauty in those days.) But I doubt Michelangelo could make a coin showing a black person that these people wouldn’t find ugly.

As for the $20 bill, Jackson has never been one of my heroes. He once said, “The Supreme Court has made its decision – now let them enforce it.” Spitting on the rule of law. And Jackson was talking about a court ruling that Georgia couldn’t steal Cherokee land. No friend of Indians, he. Indeed, his policy could be called genocidal.

Get that SOB off our money.

. . . or how about this comely lass?

. . . or how about this comely lass?

Harriet Tubman was a great, heroic personage, a humble woman of outstanding virtue, who fought slavery not just with words but deeds. She actually freed slaves. I’m proud to be a citizen of a country that would put her on its currency.

And as for that new Lady Liberty, I would remind critics, so wedded to traditional portrayals, that one of the greatest things this nation ever did, to live out its creed of liberty, was to fight a war to free the slaves. In light of that, an African-American Liberty goddess is an entirely fitting and deeply meaningful representation of the liberty this nation stands for.

But the mentioned hostility to the proposed designs doesn’t mean America is deeply racist (as cynics continue to say). This isn’t your grandfather’s racism, but more a reaction to the affirmative action culture and what’s seen as privileging blacks (an ironic counterpoint to “white privilege”). Reverse discrimination (say, in hiring) can indeed be a legitimate issue. But portrayals on currency are just symbolism, the wrong battle to fight. Given what blacks have suffered, no one should begrudge their pictures on money. And those who do are not the American mainstream. We’re a better country than that; these currency designs prove it again.

What explains the vicious left?

April 20, 2016

images-2I recently wrote about a talk by scientist David Gelernter, at the state university. A student got up to ask about an article he’d written – “What Explains the Vicious Left?” The student said he’s politically moderate, and a pervasive, aggressive campus left-wing atmosphere makes him feel under attack.

I too have written about the poisoning of American politics by those who believe people with opposing views are not just wrong but wicked. And that, while both left and right are guilty, the left is far the bigger culprit.* imagesThis is especially true on campuses, where the left totally dominates, and seeks to disallow dissent. This is the “political correctness” that is so vile.

Its latest manifestation is to “protect” students from words or ideas that might make them “uncomfortable.” We hear much about verbal “micro-aggressions” having that effect, especially on minority students. Ethnic and gender minorities, that is. images-3But what about the minority that is truly persecuted – non-leftist students – like the questioner at Gelernter’s talk? Where is the concern about their being made uncomfortable, by efforts to browbeat them into silence?

I’m reminded of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case that blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” On campuses today, conservatives have no rights a leftist is bound to respect. “The left seems to have lost its taste for democracy,” Gelernter’s article said.

Responding to the questioner, he noted that at Yale, where he teaches, conservative students have come to his office in tears because of the left’s “frantic fervor” and bullying. Gelernter suggested the phenomenon has to do with the fact that campus leftists are almost exclusively atheist/agnostic, whereas conservatives are frequently religious.

UnknownThe latter, he said, are cocooned in a strongly held moralistic belief system, satisfying a fairly universal psychological need. And with that box checked off, they don’t infuse their political views with a similar moral fervor. For them, politics is just politics. Atheist leftists, on the other hand, have only their politics to fill this psychological need, which is why they become so fierce. “Politics is their faith, in default of any other; it is the basis of their moral life.”

And naturally they are very protective of that faith, responding ferociously to any challenge; unwilling even to let opposing ideas be heard. (Just like some religious faiths, even today – apostasy is punished with death in some Muslim lands.)

More generally, politics is becoming very tribal, “us against them,” and for many it’s their core identity – virtually their ethnicity. As for why this is more true on the left, Gelernter’s religion-based theory may be at least a partial explanation. But there’s much in his article I find problematic. He’s evidently religious himself, and argues that the problem could only be cured with a religious revival — “a miracle.” Yet he seems to think it possible – ignoring why religious belief is declining — its sheer implausibility. (Though implausible ideas aren’t hampering certain presidential contenders.)

In googling Gelernter’s article, I found comments from left-wingers that were . . . surprise . . . absolutely vicious. Exemplifying the very syndrome he discusses. (Somewhat ironic, with leftists also full of talk about kindness, compassion, non-judgmentalism, and so forth.)

images-4At one time, the kind of moralistic fervor Gelernter discusses drove people to burn dissenters alive. At least we haven’t reached that stage in politics.


*Journalism professor Rosemary Armao, frequently on local radio discussion shows, supporting Hillary, has remarked upon the viciousness of messages she’s received from Bernie backers. (But none from Republicans.)

Could a machine ever feel emotion? – David Gelernter

April 15, 2016

UnknownI recently heard a talk by Yale Professor David Gelernter, notable guru of computer science and artificial intelligence.* His new book is The Tides of Mind. That’s his metaphor for human consciousness cycling between varying states: early in the day we’re full of energy, seeing the world differently from later, when attention shifts from the external to the internal realm, and insistence of memory crowds out use of reason. After reaching a mid-afternoon low point, one cycles back upward somewhat before cycling back down again toward sleep. (I’ve always felt sharpest, doing my best work, in the morning; I’m drafting this at 5 AM in an airport; in mid-afternoon I’m soporific.)

Gelernter spoke of his project to emulate these workings of the mind in a computer program. He said the spectrum’s “top edge,” where rationality predominates, is easiest to model; it gets harder lower down, where we become less like calculating machines and more emotive. And Gelernter said – categorically – that no artificial system would ever be able to feel like a human feels.

Unknown-1This I challenged in the question period, suggesting that everything a human mind does must emerge out of neurons’ information processing – admittedly a massively complex system – but if such a system could be mimicked artificially, couldn’t all its effects, including consciousness and emotion, arise therein? I referenced the movie Her.

 Gelernter replied at great length. He said that some man-made systems already approach that degree of complexity (actually, I doubt this), but nobody imagines they’re conscious. He quoted Paul Ziff that a computer can do nothing that’s not a performance – a simulation of mind functioning, not the real thing.

Unknown-5Making notes, I wrote the words “Chinese Room” before Gelernter spoke them. This refers to John Searle’s famous thought experiment: a person in a room, using a set of rules, can respond to incoming messages in Chinese, thus appearing to understand Chinese, without actually understanding Chinese. Likewise a computer, using programmed rules, could appear to converse and understand, without actually understanding.

images-1Gelernter contrasted the view of “computationalists” like Daniel Dennett who – consistent with my question – regard the mind as basically akin to a computer – the brain is the hardware, the mind is the software. Gelernter acknowledged this is a majority view. It says that while a single neuron can do nothing, nor can a thousand, when a brain has trillions of interconnections, mind emerges. But this Gelernter dismissed, analogizing that a single grain of sand can do nothing, but a trillion can’t either.

images-2Gelernter asserted that computationalists actually have no evidence for their stance, and it boils down to being an axiom – an assumption, like Euclid’s axiom that parallel lines never meet (though never meeting is the definition of parallel lines, which is something different).

I found none of this persuasive. Someone later asked me what’s the antithesis of “computationalism.” I said “magicalism.” Because Gelernter seemed to posit something magical that creates mind, above and beyond mechanistic neural processing. Unknown-3This argument has been going on for centuries. But it’s really Gelernterists who engage in axioms – that is, assuming something must be true, albeit unprovable. And I call the opposing view materialism – that all phenomena must be explicable rationally – and the mind must arise from what neurons physically do – because there is no other possibility. I do not believe in magic.

Talking with Gelernter afterward, he offered a somewhat better argument – that to get a mind from neurons, you need, well, neurons. That their specific characteristics, with all their chemistry, are indispensable, and their effects could not be reproduced in a system made, say, of plastic. He analogized neurons to the steel girders holding up the building – thanks to steel’s particular characteristics – and girders made of something else, like potato chips, wouldn’t do.Unknown-4

But I still wasn’t persuaded. Gelernter had said, again, that computer programs can only simulate human mind phenomena; for example, a program that “learns” is simulating learning but not actually learning as a human does. I think that’s incorrect – and exemplifies Gelernter’s error. What does “learning” mean? Incorporating new information to change the response to new situations – becoming smarter from experience. Computer programs now do exactly this.

Neuronal functioning is very special and sophisticated, and would be very hard to truly reproduce in a system not made from actual neurons. But not impossible, because it’s not magical. I still see no reason, in principle, why an artificial system could not someday achieve the kind of complex information processing that human brains do, which gives rise to consciousness, a sense of self, and feelings.**

Those who’ve said something is impossible have almost always proven wrong. And Arthur C. Clarke said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

* In 1993 he survived an attack by the Unabomber, whose brother, David Kaczynski, has been to my house (we had an interesting discussion about spirituality) – my three degrees of separation to Gelernter.

** See my famous article in The Humanist magazine: The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement.


Trumpelstiltskin and the yahoo vote

April 10, 2016

UnknownI will vote for Kasich, reason, and decency, in the New York primary. But this may be the first state giving Trump over 50%. Shame on New York.

He says Kasich should quit the race. That would help Trump . . . how? Does he think Kasich voters would switch to him? That he’d do better in a two-man race? Polls show over half of Republicans, nationwide, despise him.

For all his ostensible success, Trump actually has no political sense. As in his recent comment about punishing women who have abortions. Columnist Michael Gerson has suggested that what Trump is trying to do is to say things he imagines hard-right voters like. Yet Trump has not been politically engaged enough to know what conservatives actually think. His playbook is a caricature of conservatism (one largely created by its critics).

Unknown-1Of course he isn’t getting the conservative vote. He’s getting the yahoo vote. His campaign is not brilliant. Yahoos are a minority.

Insulting people isn’t normally my style. But, as The Economist quoted one observer, Trump voters “have dirt for brains.” Wanting an outsider, a savvy entrepreneur, who tells the truth, and would shake up the system, is fine. I’d vote for her. But Trump is a crass ass who does not tell it like it is, he is a compulsive serial liar; his business history is a string of scams and failures; he has no serious program; what he advocates is un-American and based on big lies too; and he enflames people’s worst instincts. He is unfit to be the leader of a great nation. His supporters disgrace their citizenship. (That means you, Christie, and Giuliani. I’m taking names.)

It remains unclear that Trump will get the delegates needed for nomination. The winner-take-all California primary will likely be decisive. Meantime we hear the trope that whoever has the most delegates, even if not a majority, should be nominated. F**k that.

images-2In fact, even if Trump does secure the 1,237 delegates, there are whispers of a GOP Plan B. The convention (to be chaired by Paul Ryan) could vote to change the rules, to require a supermajority on the first ballot.*

And here’s a key detail: winning a state’s delegates doesn’t mean a candidate gets to name them. Many are picked by state party organizations. UnknownSo a lot of delegates bound to Trump on the first ballot actually don’t like him. They could vote for the rules change. And on a second ballot Trump’s majority would melt away like a snowman in Spring.

Trump and his yahoos will scream bloody murder. But winning all these primaries with 35-40% of the vote does not entitle Trump to the nomination. A majority of primary voters (bar New York) are rejecting him. Honoring their will would be legitimate.

Would Republicans have the balls for this? It would save the party. Not only would Trump suffer a monumental November defeat, he is wrecking the Republican brand with his toxic caricature of what the party stands for.

Unknown-2And if we have an open convention, who would wind up nominated? Delegates might pull a rabbit out of a hat (like Garfield in 1880, who began with one vote). Paul Ryan would be great.

Could a fresh candidate like that win? Yes. Bernie will not be nominated, but his strength spotlights Hillary’s weakness. In November, voters will choose between two candidates, and how one got nominated won’t matter much.

I am sick to death of Trump and his vileness. I don’t want to see his vile face, hear his vile voice, or have to talk about this any more. I want it to be over.

*Not unprecedented: until 1936, Democrats required a two-thirds majority.

What America needs: more competition

April 5, 2016

imagesUnfashionably, I am an unrepentant advocate for free market capitalism. Vocal “progressive” and populist critics assail the system as rotten, rigged against ordinary people, aggravating inequality. Their cure: more regulation and government intervention, protectionism, curbing free trade, forcing wages higher, and banning corporate money from politics.

Unknown-1Well, the system is indeed rigged. Corporate money does suborn government. And, as a recent piece in The Economist explains, not only have overall profits been strong,* but particularly profitable companies have, in this century, been able to sustain their dominance. That’s contrary to economic theory, which says fat profits in a sector will soon attract competitors, driving prices down and squeezing profits.

However, the cited “progressive” agenda would actually make things worse. Indeed, a lot of it is already part of the problem. The true problem is insufficient competition. And everything “progressives” seek would lessen competition.

When I wrote my Rational Optimism book in 2009, the airline industry was Exhibit A for the virtue of competitive free markets. Now it exemplifies what’s gone wrong. The industry once was pervasively regulated and government-cosseted, but in the 1970s Alfred Kahn (my former leader at the NY PSC) heroically swept all that aside. Unknown-2The resultant flowering of new small airlines and open competition slashed fares so much that flying was no longer for the rich alone. The skies opened to millions of travelers, a vast public boon. And, as of 2009, the industry’s cumulative profits, over its entire history, were approximately zero. In other words, all the benefits of airline investment were captured by consumers, with nothing for the “greedy capitalists” who made it possible!

But then a wave of consolidations and mergers drastically reduced airline competition. Carriers now have far more pricing power, becoming very profitable indeed. Their fuel costs recently collapsed – in competition’s heyday, that would have triggered huge fare cuts – but now airlines get to keep the windfall.

images-1So, as The Economist argued, what we need is not the anti-competitive “progressive” agenda but, rather, lower barriers to competition. One example they cited is the proliferation of licensing requirements, afflicting a host of trades from hairdressing to interior decorating. Supposed consumer protection masks the real purpose: squelching competitors to existing businesses. A hair salon can charge a lot more if there’s not another nearby. Likewise, incumbent taxi firms and hotels try to get government regulators to shield them from Uber and Airbnb.

Protectionism is the same story: protecting businesses against competition, so they can charge more. Sure, free trade means some job losses. They’re very visible, like when Carrier moves a factory to Mexico. Less visible is the benefit to consumers, of lower prices, adding trillions to their wallets – whose spending means vast job creation, making up for those lost. Protectionists ignore this.

Unknown-3I’ve written before how government regulation hurts competition. Coping with massively complex regulatory regimes like Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley is doable for huge corporations with armies of lawyers and accountants. For small start-up firms, not so much. This has caused a big decline in our rate of new business creation.

Higher minimum wages too impede competition. Governor Cuomo’s $15 plan has brought forth a parade of small businesses explaining how it will hurt their viability, for self-evident reasons. “Progressives” dismiss such concerns, as if the money will just come out of fat profits, as if all business earn fat profits. Most in fact don’t. And driving some out of business, reducing competition, will make big ones even stronger, harming consumers.

I’ve recognized how campaign cash corrupts government to favor some businesses over others, again undermining competition. But opposing Citizens United is anti-competitive on the part of the political class itself. Government regulation of political campaigns will always be an incumbent-protection scheme, stifling electoral competition. I’ve advocated instead a tax credit for political donations, to unleash a flood of citizen contributions, freeing politicians from servitude to big money donors. The savings from reduced corporate welfare would dwarf the cost, to the Treasury, of the tax credit.

images-3Competition makes people better, do better, and live better.